Practical PKM

🤔 Can PKM Help You Overcome "Pseudo-Productivity"?

Published 2 months ago • 7 min read

In this edition of Practical PKM:

  • The problem with pseudo-roductivity (and what we can do about it)
  • How to apply Slow Productivity principles using The PKM Stack
  • A great new podcast about the creative process
  • My notes from Slow Productivity by Cal Newport

Pseudo-productivity is a term Cal Newport uses in his book Slow Productivity to describe the use of visible activity as the primary means of approximating actual productive effort.

And to be honest, it’s not a new concept. Managers and bosses have long judged their employees’ effectiveness by how busy they seem to be.

But for knowledge workers, this is a terrible way to measure productivity. And when the WFH (working from home) movement was forced upon us by COVID, this “management by walking around” turned into constant meetings, watching green bubbles on Slack, and expecting near-instant responses to messages and emails.

This culture forces people to work shallow, dropping everything to comment quickly whenever a request comes in at the expense of the thoughtful deep work that is actually valuable. The modern knowledge worker has been forced to become adept at switching tasks quickly and doing more than one thing at once, to the detriment (I would argue) of the actual work being done.

But these “skills” we’ve learned don’t just apply to the way we work. The worst part is that this frantic shuffling of information has infiltrated every area of our lives.

“Task switching” is no longer reserved for our 9-to-5. Armed with our smartphones, a constant stream of information is always on call to satisfy our dopamine itch. Left with a few moments to think, the discomfort causes us to involuntarily reach for the slab of glass in our pocket to fill the void.

In short, we’ve become dependent on the constant stream of information we’re exposed to. The information we are constantly consuming determines the quantity and quality of the ideas we have, and ultimately what we do ( or don’t do) with them.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can escape what I call The Default Life by anchoring everything on our vision and values. This creates a filter we can use to determine what information is useful to us and what can ultimately be ignored.

Armed with the motivation to take action on the things that matter and clarity to cut the things that don’t, we can flip the script and live The Intentional Life.

That’s the whole idea behind the PKM Stack model I teach in my Practical PKM cohort:

One of the byproducts of living a more intentional life is that things don’t seem so rushed.

Which is why I’m such a big fan of the Slow Productivity concept.

What is Slow Productivity?

Cal Newport defines Slow Productivity as a philosophy for organizing knowledge work efforts in a sustainable and meaningful manner, based on three principles:

  1. Do fewer things
  2. Work at a natural pace
  3. Obsess over quality

The problem with these three simple principles is that they are easier said than done. Applying them (especially in a job where you are paid by the hour) can be tough.

Which is why I find the PKM Stack to be the perfect Slow Productivity complement. It provides a framework to follow that aligns with the Slow Productivity concept but gives you the flexibility to craft your own workflows and systems to support your work by connecting it to your mission and purpose.

How to Apply Slow Productivity Principles Using the PKM Stack

Let’s look at each of the Slow Productivity principles individually and how The PKM Stack can help you live them out.

Principle 1: Do Fewer Things

One of the ways to do fewer things is to get clarity on what really matters. When you know your “Yes!” it’s easier to say “no.”

That’s where the Philosophy level of the PKM Stack comes in.

Your Philosophy is what you consider to be true and how you think about life. It’s comprised of your vision and values for who you want to be and what you want your life to look like.

Part of my Philosophy is something I call my LifeTheme. A LifeTheme is basically a personal mission statement, or one-sentence summary of what I want my life to be about. Here’s my LifeTheme:

“I help people find their why, multiply their time & talent, and leave a bigger dent in the universe.”

That’s my why, the reason behind everything I do. Whether I’m doing 1-on-1 productivity coaching or teaching people how to use Obsidian, the goal is to help people do more of what matters.

But more importantly, if something doesn’t connect to my LifeTheme, I don’t do it.

My LifeTheme acts as a filter for removing the things that don’t really matter so I can focus on the things that do. I don’t feel the pressure to try and do everything anymore because I’m clear on what really matters. As a result, I can say “no” a lot easier to things.

To be clear, you don’t have to have a sentence LifeTheme to do fewer things. But you do need a way to decide what’s worth doing.

Principle 2: Work at a Natural Pace

Once you have clarity on what matters, the next step is to do the work at a natural pace.

That means that you choose to do less today in order to do more over time.

We humans are terrible at estimating how long something will take. As a result, we have a tendency to overestimate what we can do in the short term and underestimate what we can get done in the long term.

So when we see a list of 12 things to get done today when planning our day, we think, “No problem - I can handle that.”

But you can’t. No one can.

There are only two possibilities that can come from this superhero syndrome:

  1. You summon your superpowers and actually get it done, creating an artificial expectation that you can do that every day (while simultaneously inviting a larger workload), or
  2. You fall flat on your face and tell yourself the story that you’re a failure because you can’t keep up.

Failure is inevitable at some point unless you learn to limit your work.

“If not controlled, work will flow to the competent man until he submerges.” - Charles Boyle

That’s why I force myself to select no more than 3 important tasks I’m going to complete in any given day. Over time, I’ve learned my limits and now force myself to stay within them. I’m intentional about picking the things that are most important. Everything else has to wait.

This only works though because of the weekly planning I do before my week even starts. That gives me a rough idea of everything that has to happen and allows me to make more realistic plans.

These weekly plans are anchored in quarterly intentions that I set during my Personal Retreat process. That way, I make sure that the things I’m planning for the week are really in alignment with my vision and values.

(If you want to see more about my planning process, I did a YouTube video about how I do the whole thing in Obsidian here.)

Principle 3: Obsess Over Quality

This last principle doesn’t require perfection, but it does require that you care. You have to believe that you have the capacity to get better and constantly strive for improvement.

Just remember: progress, not perfection.

Perfectionism will cause you to sit and tweak something for weeks instead of publishing it. But that’s actually counter-productive because the path to quality requires quantity.

I gave a talk about this once, and there was one slide that really caught people’s attention:

If you do enough work, you’ll eventually do good work. But improvement requires you to ship things in order to get real feedback and see how you can do better next time.

If you’re a perfectionist, you’ll ship less. Which means you’ll get less feedback. Which means it will take even longer to get good.

The part of the PKM Stack that applies to this Slow Productivity principle is the Ideas level and a process I call The Creativity Flywheel.

It’s a 5-step process for making the most of your ideas, all the way from the moment you capture them to the act of making something new with them.

This newsletter is already a bit long, so I won’t go into the specifics of that here. But I do have a free email course on that if you are interested in learning more.

The Importance of Slow Productivity

Cory & I read Slow Productivity for the Bookworm episode that releases this week, so if you want to know my full review of the book check out that episode when it drops on Friday. But the TL;DR is that I think this is a very important book.

As Cal mentions in the book, it’s really not about doing less and abandoning ambition. It’s about doing away with busyness and pseudo-productivity so we can do better work.

I encourage you to think about how the tools and processes you choose to use in your own PKM Stack can help facilitate your own slow productivity workflows.

Something Cool: The How I Write podcast by David Perell

Normally I link to an Obsidian plugin or resource here, but lately, I’ve been enthralled with a new podcast I stumbled upon called How I Write by David Perell. David is “the writing guy” and I’ve been intrigued by his Write of Passage course, but haven’t been able to justify the cost (I’ve heard from others that it’s really good though).

The podcast is basically David talking to a bunch of really great writers about their writing process. David is a good interviewer, and I’ve learned a lot from each episode I listen to. Some of my favorite past guests include Sahil Bloom, Steven Pressfield, Ali Abdaal, Derek Sivers, Tiago Forte, and Kevin Kelly (Overcast links provided).

New episodes come out every Wednesday. If you’re at all interested in the creative process, this is a good one to subscribe to. There's a YouTube version as well if that's your thing.

Book Notes: Slow Productivity by Cal Newport

Since this whole newsletter was inspired by Slow Productivity, it only makes sense to share my notes from Cal’s new book.

If you can’t tell already, I think this is a very important book. I enjoyed it a lot, and think everyone should read it. But then again, I co-host a podcast called Focused with a tagline that says “life is more than cranking widgets” 🙂

If you want to download my notes from this book, click here.

— Mike

P.S. I’ve got 185 more of these book notes already uploaded to my new community platform. I’m still putting the finishing touches on it, but if you want to be the first to know when the new community is available, click here. Should just be another week or two 😉

Practical PKM

by Mike Schmitz

A weekly newsletter where I help people apply values-based productivity principles and systems for personal growth, primarily using Obsidian. Subscribe if you want to make more of your notes and ideas.

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